Opinion by Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek
I had such high hopes for the U.S. Senate race in Illinois with Tammy Duckworth, D-Hoffman Estates, taking on incumbent Mark Kirk, R-Wilmette. Here we have two respected, disabled military veterans, both of whom are more moderate than extreme.
We could have a meaningful discussion about the struggles of Illinoisans. We could have a detailed discussion of the U.S. military's role in the world, of foreign affairs and our policies in Afghanistan and Iran and Syria. We could have a real-world conversation about health care or our state's heroin epidemic; about violence in Chicago's gang-plagued neighborhoods and about the lack of opportunity as our state's debts mount. We could have a thoughtful discussion about how to get Washington working for all Americans again. The campaign even could be an antidote to what seems the most bizarre presidential campaign ever.
Enlightening civic events? None so far. Civil discourse? Not here. Duckworth campaign strategists spent the first several months trying everything they could think of to tie Kirk to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, though back in June, Kirk disavowed Trump after he suggested he could not get a fair trial from a judge of Mexican heritage. Granted, Kirk did not help himself in the least by first telling reporters he would instead write in David Petraeus, a retired four-star general who had to resign as CIA director after it was revealed he had shared classified information with his mistress-biographer. Kirk followed that by saying he could not support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton because she supported President Obama's Iran deal and would instead write in Colin Powell. Alas, Powell also supports Obama's Iran deal.
Meanwhile, the Kirk camp spent months trying to tie Duckworth to convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich because she worked in his administration running the veterans' affairs department. Earlier this summer, a whistleblower lawsuit against her by two former veterans' department staffers who said they were victims of workplace retaliation was settled for $26,000, with no finding of wrongdoing. The Kirk camp suggested the settlement might collapse at one point, but that didn't happen.
Already in the muck, two true heroes -- the Army helicopter pilot who nearly died and sacrificed her legs in a U.S. military operation overseas and the former Naval Reserves officer who fought his way back from massive strokes -- can't seem to find a way to pull themselves out of it to get to dignified discourse.
When what follows landed in my inbox, what remained of my hope faded away:
I'd include more of that email, but I won't repeat claims that might be false. Suffice it to say there were more memes and the suggestion that I go check out a new Tumblr account the Democratic Party of Illinois started, called "$#*% my Senator Says."
This is our race for the esteemed United States Senate? Believe me, I know as well as anyone how incredibly difficult it is to get people's attention in Illinois. They're so sick of corruption and budget fights that far too many of them just tune out. And I do appreciate trying new things to wake people up. Heck, I even get a chuckle out of a lot of the memes we use at Reboot Illinois to lighten things up.
But this meme, the one that came after it and a social media account called "$#*% my Senator Says?" Well, maybe it's just me? Maybe this is a smart way to reach young voters?
It's possible. After all, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, working to help Kirk, is at it, too:
It's not like attaching candidates to others is a new trick. And certainly, Duckworth's management of her department and Kirk's misstatements should be weighed by voters. But so should so many other things. I thought I should see if I was alone in my distaste for the tenor and the use of these gimmicks in what is the top U.S. Senate race in the nation.
John Frendreis, a political scientist at Loyola University, noted in an email exchange that Kirk is in a difficult position.
"He cannot possibly win if he embraces Trump, who will lose Illinois by a large margin, but he cannot afford to push away any Republican voters. So his Clinton-Iran position is not credible, but it gives him something to say.
"... As far as her comments about Kirk," he continued, "this race is off to a dismal start of negative campaigning, and there is little reason to think it is going to change. She would be better off spending her time using Kirk's record as part of the Republican Senate caucus to show that he has worked against many things that the people of Illinois would like to see done. His involvement in blocking Obama's agenda will play reasonably well in a state where Obama is still popular."
And David Yepsen, the former Des Moines Register political writer who runs the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, said in an email, "The dialogue in the Senate race - and many other races - leaves a lot to be desired these days. We've come a long way since Paul Simon and Everett Dirksen set the tone for political discourse."
Isn't that the truth?
"One reason this happens is people have such little respect for politicians these days that the best way to win is not to talk about your positives or your ideas," Yepsen continued, "but do things to drive up your opponent's negatives.
"... Another reason is social media and coarseness that come with it. Attention spans are shorter. F-Bombs are used by presidential candidates. We debate and argue in 140 characters and call each other names in ALL CAPS!
"And in Illinois it comes against a state facing a perfect storm of state budget deficits, Chicago budgets deficits and street violence," he said. "It's little wonder people tune it out. Not only is this stuff coarse and often silly, but it's also irrelevant to the daily lives of hard-working people."
They nailed it. We have a long way to go to Nov. 8, so let's keep hope alive. Kirk just left on a bus tour of Illinois, so maybe some of those hard-working people will get him talking about how he can help bring better jobs back to Illinois. And Duckworth recently announced she'll join Kirk in participating in three debates and two joint editorial board endorsement sessions.
I'm going to count on the campaigns and my colleagues in journalism to set aside the coarse memes and tweets and tumblr silliness and put us back on track toward a Senate race discourse worthy of a state that faces a lot of challenges.
We're in dire need of a U.S. senator who can rise above gimmicks and offer detailed discussion about our problems and solutions. We need a campaign worthy of the two heroic, disabled military veterans running.
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